From an early age, Emily Ballew Neff felt “at home” in art museums. She obtained a doctorate. in art history and began her career in her hometown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where she eventually became the founding curator of American Painting and Sculpture. She recently served as Executive Director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. There, she led the effort (and requested the fundraising) to move the museum downtown. Neff became Kelso’s director at the San Antonio Museum of Art in January and has spent the past few months listening to staff, board members and the community about what the museum has to offer and how it might improve. adapt from the perspective of a post-COVID world. “I really want to meet the San Antonians and hear from the San Antonians about what they want to see from their art museum,” she says.
To resume: Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (University of Oklahoma), Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Education: BA, Yale; Masters, Rice; Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin
Do you plan to return to Texas? Why San Antonio and SAMA?
It’s just amazing when you look at the kind of cultural strength that Texas brings to the table. I never took it for granted, but it’s really wonderful to be back.
Growing up in Houston, San Antonio was the place you came to visit because it was the most fun town in Texas. We would visit and of course do all the missions and the river and enjoy the museums—SAMA and McNay. And now, of course, there’s Ruby City. I’m very happy to be in a place that’s already culturally rich even before it had an art museum, and we have three. And that’s before you get to all the other spaces, Artpace and Blue Star and Lone Star and Presa House. I have seen from afar how dynamic San Antonio has become.
You have made accessibility to museums a priority in your past role. How do you accomplish this?
The San Antonians have so much to be proud of (at SAMA) and that’s one of my goals, not only building on that strength, but also helping people understand how great it is. wonderful and a source of civic pride.
It requires converting hearts and minds one by one. I admit that I was very lucky because my parents loved art and music, which means that as a child I was exposed to art and music. But people may have different interests or abilities to connect.
For us, it’s about delivering on the promise of the public art museum, which was founded with the Louvre and the idea that art that once belonged to the king now belonged to the people. (Public art museums) have spent over 200 years trying to deliver on that promise and we still have a long way to go. We want to make sure people understand that it belongs to them. It is their museum.
That’s the whole concept, but you do it through a variety of programs. We do this through school programs and art programs and our exhibitions and family days where people who don’t necessarily come to art museums can come and have fun and experience art. But we’re also still trying to figure out how that’s different now with COVID. There is a real thirst for connection. What new programs can we launch and what will we drop? It’s sometimes the hardest decision, but I think we feel a bit liberated to have a new canvas to work on without losing sight of the great traditions of the past.
What are some of the barriers that prevent people from visiting museums?
My favorite phrase that I can’t take credit for is that art museums are a playground for the mind, and I think that’s the playful part that people might not be as aware.
Art museums are fun. They can be pretty serious, but they can also be a great source of fun because they usually ask you to think about things differently.
The other thing is that museums need to make it clearer to the public that you’re not coming for a test. You don’t need to know anything about art to come here.
What I found at my last gig in Memphis, where there are a lot of underserved populations, was that once people walked through the threshold, it was amazing and they kept coming back. People who thought museums weren’t for them would say, “It’s for me, and I love it. But we have to strive to get people across the threshold.
What challenges has COVID presented?
There were fewer people visiting the shows or becoming members, so a certain percentage of our earned income took a hit. What I will say about SAMA is that when you compare yourself, we are on par with other art museums across the country. So, yes, it’s a challenge, but we didn’t have to close our doors.
I think there’s this feeling that it’s time to recalibrate and rethink. There are some things that are non-negotiable in relation to our mission and our values but apart from that I think there is a will to recalibrate. We want to be more responsive to the community. And the community is not monolithic, so who are we not reaching? How can we make more people know it’s for them? It is the city’s art museum.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.